New immigration rules could prevent universities from hiring the best international talent and send a message that Britain is “closing the ranks”, higher education leaders have warned.
Academics and university bodies have told Sky News that an increase in the minimum wage for a skilled worker visa is effectively pricing out early career academics and researchers who are vital to driving innovation.
Around 32% of academic staff at UK universities are from abroad, but this week Home Secretary James Cleverley announced that the minimum salary threshold for a qualifying visa would rise from £26,200 to £38,700well above the early career academic average of £30,000-£35,000.
In addition, foreign workers will see the NHS Supplement, a healthcare charge that must be paid upfront, rise from over £600 to more than £1,000.
University leaders fear the pay gap will hurt their ability to compete for the best talent in a truly international market, where research funds will potentially have to be diverted to top salaries.
“The increase in the general wage requirement for skilled workers is really significant. The category of people it’s going to affect are precisely the early career and postdoctoral researchers who are so vital,” says Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, Vice-Chancellor of St. Andrews and President of Universities UK.
“A lot of the people we’re hiring as postdocs aren’t at that salary level, so the implications are that it’s going to add another cost at the very point where we’re struggling.
“The message this sends to the potential workforce is that Britain is not really looking to boost its economy, but rather is closing ranks.”
“All extra obstacles are bad obstacles”
Dame Sally also warned that the increased costs could undermine the Government’s ambition for Britain to be a science and technology “superpower”.
The Prime Minister and Chancellor have repeatedly acknowledged that there is a direct link between the innovation of the UK’s truly world-class universities and the high-growth industries of the future such as life sciences and artificial intelligence.
Dame Sally added: “The Government needs to look very carefully at what message it wants to get across. If we say the UK is looking to boost its economy and be a global player, then it needs a constructive, committed and really creative policy towards the employment of vital talent we need from around the world.”
Professor David Kent, who runs a leukemia research program at the University of York’s Department of Biology, says the extra cost of hiring from abroad could deter people from joining a staff that already includes Polish, Swedish, Mexican and Chinese staff.
He explained: “People will now be faced with a choice. I’ll say I’d like to interview you and they’ll ask: ‘What does my future look like if I have this thousand pounds a year for my health allowance, because each member of my family, prepaid for the duration of my visa and I have to meet this minimum wage?’.
“If you’re a German postdoc looking at positions in Germany, France or the UK, these are extra hurdles, and any extra hurdles to bring the best and brightest here are bad hurdles and we need to get around them.”
Home Office defends visa routes despite concerns over students
Under the current visa regime, there are a number of discounts on paying full salary that universities can apply to certain categories of staff, but the Home Office could not confirm whether they would apply under the new rules.
They said alternative routes for academics would still apply, including the Global Talent pathway for highly skilled migrants that do not require visas.
“While net migration remains too high, putting pressure on public services, we have a world-leading range of visa routes to attract international talent to our technology sector and support international founders setting up businesses in the UK,” a Home Office spokesman said. .
The higher education sector is already under acute financial pressure with universities relying heavily on overseas students to underwrite limited domestic fees which do not cover the cost of providing education, leading to a debt burden of around £1bn.
There are concerns that a review of the student visa scheme also announced this week could further undermine Britain’s competitiveness.
With students accounting for more than a third of net migration last year, the government has already tightened the rules on students bringing their relatives to this country.
Currently, students can transfer to a two-year work visa after three years, but this is under review.
University leaders point out that countries such as Australia allow at least three years of work with relatives.